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Bergdahl-for-Taliban swap: why Pentagon officials think it's not a bad deal

The Bergdahl-for-Taliban swap is under fire from Republican lawmakers and commentators. But Taliban leaders' release does not pose that great a threat to US troops, Pentagon officials say.

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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (r.) stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban on Wednesday released a video showing the handover of Bergdahl to US forces in eastern Afghanistan, touting the swap of the American soldier for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a significant achievement for the insurgents.

Voice Of Jihad Website/AP

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While top GOP lawmakers and commentators are charging that it was wrong for the United States to barter with terrorists for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, defense officials and analysts are defending the negotiations, saying the release of the Taliban leaders is not so dire for US armed forces.

For one, the US has not designated the Taliban, which held Sergeant Bergdahl captive for five years, as a terrorist organization, in part to allow the government to make exactly such deals when it needs to, the officials and analysts note.

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Second, it’s not clear how valuable, or trusted, the Taliban leaders who have been held by the US for five years will be to an organization that is rather large and not lacking in leadership, they say.

Such negotiations are common with enemy forces, and as America winds down the longest war in its history, the Afghan government could start serious reconciliation talks with the Taliban, negotiating terms that could include the release of the Taliban captives from Guantanamo anyway.

In the meantime, defense officials say, if the Taliban leaders return to the battlefield, they can be tracked and targeted.

This point has not appeared to assuage the concern of some lawmakers, however.

“I think the big issue here is what’s going to happen to these five individuals,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Ariz., himself a former prisoner of war. “If they reenter the fight, then it is going to put American lives at risk.”  

Rep. Buck McKeon (R) of Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced a hearing on the topic next Wednesday, inviting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to testify.

“America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason,” he said in a joint statement with Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committees.

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This happened as commentator Oliver North, in what many considered an ironic twist, railed against the White House for trading “five Taliban kingpins” for Bergdahl. Mr. North was indicted for helping the Reagan administration sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. 

Yet negotiations such as those that involved Bergdahl are common in war, says Daniel Byman, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Israel has famously had large prisoner exchanges with Hamas and Hezbollah, regarded as terrorist organizations by both the US and Israel, releasing “hundreds and even thousands of people” for their soldiers.

As the US war winds down, reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban may prove necessary.

“It’s implausible that military forces can defeat the Taliban on the field of battle” after US troops leave, says Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment team in Afghanistan in 2009.

“If we’re prepared to declare the Taliban as terrorists we can’t negotiate with, then we’re going to lose the war,” he says. “The war is stalemated militarily.” 

And it is difficult to imagine “any serious deal with the Taliban that did not involve prisoner exchange,” says Mr. Byman.

Then there is the question, too, of how valuable the released Taliban “kingpins” actually are. Some terrorist organizations are small and “don’t have a bench,” Byman notes. “But the Taliban is very big and they lose people all the time. There’s a question of how irreplaceable these people are.”

The US military’s psychological operations will likely do what it can to discredit the prisoners, or intimate that they cooperated.

“It’s always a question when a prisoner is released as to why they were released,” he adds. “These groups are paranoid.”

Most important, however, is the signal the trade sends to American troops, senior US military officials say. 

“It was always a high priority that every soldier deployed to Afghanistan would return home,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s top officer, said in a statement Wednesday. “We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.”